Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Publisher and staff of The Westchester Guardian are pleased to announce the addition of Catherine Wilson to our team.

Readers are already familiar with Ms. Wilson, formerly with the Reader’s Digest organization in Chappaqua for many years. She has been a frequent contributor and guest columnist in recent months; and she will be covering
major news stories from Northern Westchester as well and reinstating the Northern Westchester Roundup.

Mt. Pleasant Gears Up For Battle Over Tax-Exempt University Proposal

By Catherine Wilson, Northern Bureau Chief

In October of this year, the Legion Of Christ submitted a draft environmental impact study (DEIS)
to the town of Mt. Pleasant and interested agencies. This report can be found at www.rhbpc.com/current/
westchester_u_deis/cur_westchester_deis.htm. This latest report has raised many concerns for the citizens of Mt. Pleasant and the surrounding communities. The Legion is still proposing the development of a full university with academic buildings, dormitories, an athletic center, a student union, a theater, a library, a chapel and houses for
faculty members. But a lot of external conditions have changed since this university was first proposed in 1996.

Chief among the residents’ concerns are environmental issues. A spokesperson for the Citizens of Action for Mt. Pleasant (C.A.M.P.), Mary Hegarty, noted that part of the proposed site is within the New York City watershed for the Kensico dam. Ms. Hegarty further noted that the Legion site is also at the head waters of the Bronx River. Any development in Mt. Pleasant would impact neighbors downstream. New federal, state, and city laws affect the handling of storm water runoffs, an issue that would be impacted by any development at this site. Andy
Spano, on News12’s Newsmakers program, on November 18, voiced his concerns over development in our communities that impact surrounding neighborhoods, citing the flooding issues in Mamaroneck as an example. As C.A.M.P. members correctly point out, any major development in their town will affect the surrounding communities and beyond.

Mt. Pleasant residents are personally familiar with changing weather conditions created by global warming, having survived a tornado in their midst in July 2006. Rather than disturbing the Kensico and Bronx River watersheds, the C.A.M.P. members are proposing that the Legion adapt already existing facilities for use for their university to alleviate the stress on the environment that major new construction would impose. C.A.M.P. members have suggested the prior Fordham, Marymount college site in Tarrytown as a comparable and feasible alternative.

A spokesperson for the Legion, Mr. Jim Fair, stated that the Legion was not able to comment on alternative sites at this time. Equally concerning for the Town is the increased traffic that a large university would surely attract. The Legion’s site exits onto Columbus Avenue, less than two miles down the road from Valhalla High School – a County evacuation center for Indian Point. C.A.M.P. is concerned that, should a county evacuation be necessary, emergency vehicles and evacuation buses would be competing for road space on Columbus Avenue with thousands of cars exiting the Legion University. Lisa Barile, the founder of C.A.M.P., notes that any major development in Westchester must take into consideration the County’s evacuation plans; plans that were not in
existence in 1996 but that must be accommodated now.

While Mr. Fair noted that the Legion “will work with all appropriate agencies” in its planning, the DEIS submitted to the Town Board did not include copies to the Mt. Pleasant Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

Given the increased traffic, the established evacuation routes, and the proximity of the New York City water supply, C.A.M.P. believes that these agencies must be included in any reviews.

Indeed, the interest from some of these agencies is extremely high – New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection is so concerned over any development to this watershed property that it has expressed its desire to purchase a portion of the property from the Legion. The National Trust for Public Land and the Westchester County Open Space Institute have both expressed an interest in preserving this land.

In the interim, over 160 acres of the property lies vacant and undeveloped. Local community leaders met with officials of the Legion in April 2006 asking for access to a portion of it – specifically access to soccer fields and a hiking path that the Legion had blocked. Mr. Fair confirmed that, to date, the requests from the community leaders were still “under consideration”. A previous request from the Mt. Pleasant school district to purchase a small parcel of land from the Legion has already been denied. The school district had hoped to purchase one acre of land that abutted its property to build a baseball field for the local high school. The Legion refused to sell the acre, forcing the school district to reconfigure its plans and lose out on acreage needed for a popular soccer program.

To date, the major battle between the Legion and the Town has been over property taxes with the Town ultimately losing its appeals before the New York State Courts. Robert Meehan, the Supervisor for the Town of Mt. Pleasant, estimates that the Town, County, and schools lose a combined $1.5 million in tax revenues per year from this site. Mr. Meehan notes that the town already has approximately 30% of its properties designated as tax-exempt, among them the Grasslands facilities (the Westchester County Medical Center and the County
Jail), several treatment facilities and colleges, as well as the more typical religious and non-profit agencies. Mr. Meehan estimates that Mt. Pleasant has one of the highest, if not the highest, proportion of tax-exempt facilities of any town in the County placing a considerable burden on Town services already.

The issue of the Residents of Mt Pleasant vs. the Proposed Westchester University is one that concerns all Westchester County residents. A loss of tax revenue to Mt. Pleasant is a loss of revenue to all County residents since part of the $1.5 million annual shortfall is County taxes. County taxpayers would also bear some of the financial burden for the increased demand for services that a new university would surely create. As County Executive Spano noted earlier this month, any major development in one of our communities should be reviewed to determine its impact upon other County residents. While Mr. Spano was specifically referring to environmental impacts, the County, and its residents, must also be concerned with the financial and logistical impact any large developments would have on the County overall. The construction of a major university in Mt. Pleasant
would permanently remove a large parcel of land from the County tax coffers. It would increase demand for services, affect the environment, and impede emergency evacuation routes. As such, the Legion’s proposal for a major tax-exempt university in our midst demands the attention of every County resident.

The next hearing for the Legion proposal is scheduled for 8:00 p.m., Thursday, December 6 at the Town of Mt. Pleasant Town Hall, Columbus Avenue, Valhalla. Further information may be obtained at 914-742-2300 or at www.mtpleasantny.com.

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